Slowly, slowly, the federal government is moving towards telework. The Washington Post reports that the US Patent and Trademark Office is launching an experimental project in telework.
Under the pilot, 10 experienced trademark lawyers with good job-performance ratings will be permitted to move anywhere in the continental United States and work from home.
"To my knowledge, there is no other program like this in the federal government," said Howard Friedman , president of National Treasury Employees Union Chapter 245.
Oh, but as always bureaucratic rules make the offer not quite as good as it sounds. Under the project, the lawyers must show up once a week at the Alexandria headquarters, at their own expense. Pretty much nixes a move to, say, Connecticut - at least on a government lawyer's salary. And why? The PTO needs to keep the lawyers on the roster at agency headquarters to avoid triggering a law that mandates reimbursement for employee travel and per diems.
"Ultimately, we'd like to get to a point where people come in the office less frequently than once a week," said Deborah Cohn , deputy commissioner for trademark operations. "We'll be trying to get to a point where, if they live in North Carolina or Florida, they don't have to come in except on rare occasions."
Cohn said the PTO decided to sponsor the pilot program after hearing from employees who want to be able to move away from the Washington area for family or lifestyle reasons. "Telework is a fabulous retention tool," she said. "We want to keep them; they are good employees."
The PTO is a leading light in telework. Ten years ago, the agency started a telework program for patent lawyers. The current rules state that teleworkers have to live within 110 miles of the agency office -- a limitation Cohn said was designed for an era when the agency installed desktop computers in employees' homes and arranged for cable companies to provide Internet service.
Today, most trademark lawyers work on laptops, and changes in technology have made it easier for them to connect to agency networks from their homes. The advent of Internet-based telephone service also makes it less expensive for trademark lawyers to provide services to companies and others who do business with the agency.
The PTO is in the vanguard of the government's work-at-home movement. In addition to trademark lawyers, about 500 senior patent examiners are telecommuting in a program that began in February. Over time, it could grow to as many as 3,000 examiners.